‘Museums Facing Extinction’ — How Our Pilot Event Went

‘Museums Facing Extinction’ is a series of events designed by EIT Climate-KIC and We Are Museums.

This is the summary of the pilot event of our new programme ‘Museums Facing Extinction’ which took place from 21 to 24 November 2019 at the Futurium in Berlin, Germany.

Introduction

During the Museums Facing Extinction pilot event last month in Berlin, Germany, Miranda Massie, director of the Climate Museum (United States), explained that museums, as houses of knowledge and harbours of public trust, are rife with potential to create awareness and affect systemic change. The museum sector has begun to take note of their role to raise awareness, lead discussions and support actions on the climate crisis. That leadership will require substantial innovation, boldness, honesty, and as Robert R. Janes, founder and co-chair of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice (Canada), called for during his Museums Facing Extinction provocation, “unprecedented cooperation.”

Museums Facing Extinction is an example of that unprecedented cooperation. In attendance at the pilot event was a diverse group of climate, culture, and change-making experts who were given the space to take new risks and remain vulnerable in their sprint to develop solutions for the museum sector. The prevalence of honesty, benevolence, and willingness to push boundaries is foundational to the generative community being created by Museums Facing Extinction.

Original Concept

Museums Facing Extinction is designed to be a series of workshops created under the We Are Museums & EIT Climate-KIC partnership during which participants are tasked with producing solution-oriented actions that can be applied by cultural institutions worldwide. The following four levels of museum action serve as a framework to allow the participants to identify four main challenges, and co-design respective solutions:
your museum represents 80,000 museums worldwide, use your voice, act like a neighbour, and turn the physical museum green.

Participants

The heart of Museums Facing Extinction is its diverse group of expert participants. Individuals from the culture sector, green and natural architecture experts, political scientists, and representatives of activist groups, among others, were invited to come together across their professional landscapes to create solutions. There were individuals present whose museums had already made huge leaps in transitioning to a green mandate and others whose museums had not yet opened. Whether individuals were acting as guides or posing innovative questions, pushing radicalism, or reminding the group that socially-good solutions take time, each participant played an important role in a cohesive organism, set on co-creating climate solutions for the museum sector.

Format

The event’s driving purpose was reflected by every aspect of the program; from residing in a sustainably managed hotel, to dining at a restaurant operating with zero-waste, to hosting content creation within Berlin’s newly opened ‘house of the future,’ and attending new art exhibitions in the area; the embrace of local surroundings and the intent to create an immersive and cohesive experience are guiding forces of Museums Facing Extinction. The group embarked on two full days of sprinted solution creation led by Sholeh Johnston, an associate of Julie’s Bicycle (United Kingdom), wherein the group introduced, discussed, and determined important themes or issues that should be addressed. Through repeated rounds of deep examination of identified themes, the group was able to categorize core ideas and classify needs in the museum sector, arranging them under the four Museums Facing Extinction action-levels.

Welcome and Tour: Thursday, 21 November

Diane Drubay, founder of We Are Museums (France), and Dr. Stefan Brandt, director of the Futurium (Germany), welcomed the group into the recently opened Futurium in Berlin, Germany, which Dr. Brandt described as “a place of the future with a burdened past,” as it was constructed in the path where the Berlin Wall once stood. Gabriela Zipf, head of Curation at the Futurium (Germany), led the group to the main exhibition floor for a self-guided tour after which they convened in a circle to engage in reflection and discussion, which quickly turned toward museum practice, sustainability, and both the vulnerability and innovation of new institutions.

Provocations and Agenda Setting: Friday, 22 November

Participants gave five-minute, five slide provocations, in order to engage and inspire the entire group. Early on, Bridget Mckenzie, the founding director of the Climate Museum UK (United Kingdom), introduced her intriguing new word; “possitopian,” which imagines many possible futures, rather than a purely utopian or dystopian one. This concept presented itself not only throughout the discussions had by participants, but throughout the space, they were in as well: the Futurium boasts that it presents possibilities, rather than simply displaying scenarios of the future. The provocation of Annesofie Norn, curator at UN Live — Museum of the United Nations (Denmark), touched on two core Museums Facing Extinction action-levels when she inspired the group with the notion that in order to be truly global, you must be local everywhere. Rena Baledi, the co-project leader at the Museum of Movements (Sweden) reminded to be humble and work slowly when engaging the local community and to do nothing about them, without them was greatly appreciated. Diane Drubay and Hannah-Lee Chalk, learning manager at the Manchester Museum (United Kingdom) both offered perspectives on the concept of care, which sparked a productive discussion and led multiple sessions of co-creation.

Discussion and Solution Creation: Saturday, 23 November

Three themes were identified and discussed. Some participants simply refined their original ideas, while others redesigned their thinking after facing dilemmas. Three early-form toolkits resulted.

The Gift: The group developing this toolkit initially focused on a matrix of resources, exemplary practice, and a collaborative sector-wide letter of conduct. Initially, there was push-back on creating ‘another toolkit,’ and later there was tension about the potential of creating ‘another network.’ The group further refined their template to focus on connecting museums across bio-regions, drafting a shared statement, and establishing a flat hierarchy which invites people to join and suggest innovative projects.

Principles for Nature-Centric Program Design: This group initially oscillated between specific projects and more general topics, with a goal to establish nature as part of the museum’s DNA. Eventually, they were able to refine their toolkit to specific, shareable suggestions which would engage museums’ environmental efforts with local investments, such as adopting local plants into the landscape, creating programs that reconsider the surrounding nature, and taking the audience’s relationship with nature into consideration.

New Ethics of Care: The design of this solution kit had the least amount of fluctuation during the solution-creation and harvesting periods. The focus remained on reevaluating the concept of care, taking into consideration what it means to care for your museum, community, employees, and the environment. The group produced an early outline of a health check for museums to undergo in order to have their level of in-house care evaluated. The focus was on sharing best practice for care, rather than shaming fellow institutions.

Feedback: Sunday 24 November

On the final day of the pilot event, the group met at the conference room of their sustainably managed hotel, Lulu Guldsmeden, for a feedback session, in order to improve the next series. Early fears or frustrations about longevity and impact were addressed, and it was expressed that the community being formed was more regenerative than a standard network, as the diversity, transparency, friction, and vulnerability established made Museums Facing Extinction unique, to begin with.

This pilot event gave us a clear vision of the potent and relevant topics to tackle within the programme ‘Museums Facing Extinction’ in 2020. By gathering this first group of experts, we created a solid and rich soil for the next workshops to grow from.

Museum futurist, curator & community builder. Founder of @wearemuseums. Visual artist nudging for nature awareness.